Wednesday, 20 October 2010

It's Not Lucid For Me Anymore

For those of you a bit limited in your English knowledge, lucid means "easily understood; completely intelligible or comprehensible."

My experience bringing up some Web servers on the latest release of Ubuntu Linux, release 10.10 aka "Maverick Meerkat" (replacing 10.04, "Lucid Lynx") left me feeling scalped by Apache (the Web server software).

It's (usually) quite straightforward to bring up a Web site in a server's main document root directory, the system-wide, (hopefully) secured directory that Apache loads files from when you browse a simple Web URL such as

Many modern Web sites, and the tools used to build them, depend heavily on Apache's mod_rewrite module, which takes the URL requested by your browser and "rewrites" it into something quite different for security purposes and/or to enable various Web application frameworks to function. Your browser's request for may be presented to the server as if you'd typed All this is transparent FM to you and, more importantly, to the search engines (Google and friends).

OK, fine. Anybody who's been doing Web work at all knows this. If you've used the Web server on your own system (Apache comes standard with every Apple Mac or Linux system; you Windows usees will have to do it for/to yourselves). The ''mod_rewrite'' syntax makes "arcane" a laughable understatement, but again, no biggie. If you're using just about any framework, it comes with (or documents how to create) the configuration file needed, which generally requires minimal-to-no twiddling from you. Again, as long as you're working at the system document root.

What will send you on a magical voyage of discovery, or an extreme bout of Google-fu, is if you're not working at the system root. Maybe you've got more than one Web site or app you're hosting on a single server (generally using "virtual hosts". More likely, you want to be able to serve a Web page or site from your own user-level directory. Apache has a module for that, too; it's called mod_userdir. And as long as you're dealing with static Web pages, it's drop-dead simple. That makes sense; Apache has been around quite nearly as long as the Web has; all the easy problems and most of the reasonably hard ones have long been solved by now.

As you can probably guess from the build-up here, mixing all the above ingredients (Apache, a framework, mod_rewrite and mod_userdir is a fairly reliable way to ensure that "hilarity ensues". This is so not so much because the combination inherently poses challenges (reasonable experienced developers may differ on that), but because the interaction is quite often (read: until and unless decisively proven otherwise) platform-specific. By "platform-specific," I mean "virtually certain to differ between various distributions of Linux, not to mention Mac OS X, BSD Unix (FreeBSD, OpenBSD, etc.) and Windows."

You may have made it all work on a dozen systems before, only to find that the next system you try displays the performance characteristics of an in-process actuation of an IED. You'll flail around, you'll feel like a "stupid newbie," you'll get on IRC and pound on Google. And sooner or later, because you are a stubborn SOB (aren't you?), you'll find (situation-specific) Enlightenment.

And so, I wish to announce my heart-felt thanks to user FRuso on the Ubuntu user forums who posted this response to The Question. It's a different answer than for openSUSE or Fedora, and please don't do this to an OS X system. But if you're one of the Teeming Millions™ (well, Hundreds, anyway) trudging down this well-worn trail and you're trying to make Ubuntu work, this will help out.

Because, after all, if every similar platform worked the same way, people might actually get work done. If it was that easy, ordinary Joe-Sixpack users might start setting up their own servers, instead of relying on corporate-sanctioned and -supported hosting providers to centralise everything. And then, people might actually exchange ideas and grow their minds a bit! Who knows?

Ahhh, it's "the Internet" (actually, the Web). Most people don't care, as long as they can view the latest bread and circuses on YouTube or Hulu.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Redundancy is Repetitive, Inefficient and Counterproductive

But you already know that.

I've long been a supporter of free and open source software, even contributing to a few projects. However, my enthusiasm has cooled a bit in the last several years, as the time I've been able to devote to such projects has both dwindled and been divided among more projects.

I'm continually flabbergasted by the number of open-source projects that cover the same ground, ad infinitum, often with little to no apparent differentiation between them. By continually "reinventing the same wheel," these small projects usually manage to put out a small number of alpha- or beta-quality releases, and then cease to make visible progress. This could be because the original developer(s) became frustrated or distracted; because the project succumbed to internal politics (a leading cause of FLOSS project death); or merely because the developer(s) realised that they were deep in the rut of a path that has been travelled many, many times before.

This flash of obviousness came about as I've been researching and evaluating PHP frameworks for Web development. I've been developing and maintaining sites using a couple of these, notably Kohana 2.3, but for various reasons have been reluctant to make the switch to the now-current 3.0 release. I decided to do a relatively formal, structured evaluation of several of the frameworks out there, rather than just pounce on the first I came across that looked "reasonable." (Silly me, but oh well.) Of course, as my list of frameworks to look at grew from six, to twenty, to considerably more, I became uncomfortable; torn between the reality that I'm doing this all myself (and devoting significantly less than 100% time to the endeavour), but at the same time wanting to remain open to pleasant surprises. After all, "pleasant surprises" were how I stumbled upon Kohana in the first place, and though I am strongly considering using another tool in its place (again, for non-technical reasons), contributing to a megalithic monoculture is not my idea of "adding value."

Today I did something that I should have done a week or two ago: I went out to SourceForge and got a list of all the PHP frameworks registered on the site.

Oh, my effing $DEITY! "Searching gives 1316 results."

Obviously, not all of those are appropriate (there are numerous reinventions of the CMS wheel, for instance); many can be filtered simply because they haven't published updates recently enough to meet my criteria, and so on, but that's all rather beside my current point.

Open-source projects are (in)famously both insular and prolific, leading to the kind of nonsense I ran into on SourceForge. Commercial products have a built-in inhibitor of this particular pathology: if a market gets divided among so many competitors that nobody can cover their costs, then in very short order the existing products will either consolidate into fewer, more sustainable alternatives or die altogether. Open-source projects, particularly those started by people inexperienced in such projects, fail to realise that they too are competing for resources just as much as their commercial brethren. In the FLOSS case, the finite, competed-for resource is time, both of (potential) contributors and of passive users (what the commercial world calls "customers").

Some open-source projects recognise this. In the Linux and Unix/BSD desktop worlds, the "market" for desktop managers (that provide the windows, icons, menus, and so on that are the UI to the user) has been dominated by two projects, KDE and GNOME. Though there are other choices with solid offerings and active communities, a developer can choose to develop for either KDE or GNOME with the confidence that virtually anyone in his target audience will be able to run his software on their system of choice. Consequently, most projects that have to make a choice, choose KDE or GNOME.

The Web is a different beast entirely, and while standards are for the most part very well-defined, the "barrier to entry" for those seeking to do things (allegedly) differently is very low. Some in the PHP Web development community advise new developers to tackle creating their own framework, as a learning tool. I suspect that that's how many of the SourceForge listings originated. I also happen to think that the advice itself is naïve, akin to a new auto mechanic being advised to build his own engine to gain a better understanding of those from Toyota or Ford. What I would recommend instead is that a new developer learn one or two of the more widely-used frameworks, browse around for another two or three that seem interesting, and start contributing to the project(s) of her choice. Virtually all such projects recognise their need for more help, as well as the fact that "we were all newbies once."

Consolidation in the PHP-framework field, while maintaining the low barrier to entry, should be a Good Thing™: to a greater degree than commercial products, FLOSS projects should succeed on their merits, technical and otherwise. As more developers join a well-run project community, the project's software should continue to both improve and find wider user/customer use. The ability to "do your own thing" should be kept, if only as a check against the use of marketing hype over technical merit.

But I believe that relatively small, informal "A- and B-List" groups of selections would be good for projects and developers (and developers' clients); a lot of what I've come across in the last few days would be on my "P-List," if not "ZZZZ."

Oh yeah, by the way: this sort of maturation and shared effort would do wonders for our Craft's progress towards true professional status. Any of us who've had our schedules and budgets tinkered with by people who admit they know nothing of what we do should understand the desirability of that goal. Given the degree to which software permeates public life and policy, that "desirability" has become a dire necessity; it's just more expedient for people to pretend that isn't really the case. Stuxnet, anyone?